»Atalanta« in America

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

I am pleased to see that Eugene Goossens is preparing Bantock’s choral symphony, Atalanta in Calydon, for performance at the Cincinnati Festival next May. As it happens, I remember its first performance, given at a Hallé concert in Manchester. At the time we had had a surfeit of unknown Russian music, out of which Tchaikovsky’s symphonies came into the light; the symphonic poems of Strauss excited orchestral players and audience alike; and Elgar had come into his own. The chance for the English explorer had come, for the general practitioner in music was submerged in the new sea of colour and expression. Bantock struck out and survived, though he was drenched with the waters of the Neva and the Rhine. He might have been caught up in the flood carrying Elgar to success, but he struck out for himself and wrote Omar Khayyam, a large-scale orchestral and choral symphonic cantata. He was applauded for a beautiful and original choral work, which many still regard as his best achievement.

Atalanta is something quite different, and is doubtless Bantock’s answer to the inevitable ‘What next?’ after a composer has produced a successful work. For some years unaccompanied choral music had been cultivated at the competition festivals, particularly at Morecambe, and there the masterpieces of the Elizabethan madrigalist came again into being. We also heard original works by Brahms and Cornelius, which stirred choralists as much as the symphonic poems had excited orchestral players. I remember Peter Cornelius’s partsong for eight mixed voices. ‘O death, thou art the tranquil night’ (Canon Gorton’s translation). Its performance was a sensation: for the first time voices were heard exploring a musical range of expression previously known only to the orchestra. We were in a land all new. It was the finest piece of unaccompanied choral writing introduced from abroad; but Cornelius never again ventured along those paths. He had really ‘scored’ voices, a task more difficult than writing for voices1.

The art of ‘scoring’ for voices unaccompanied lay dormant until Bantock arrived with his choral symphony Atalanta. This was a long stride forward from the ten minutes’ work of Cornelius: nothing less than the dimensions of a four-movement symphony was sufficient for Bantock. Of course, he was solemnly arraigned for transferring orchestral methods of scoring to voices: well, if he was to break away from old-fashioned methods of unaccompanied vocal writing, he must perforce score for voices. At the performance, the one question was, Would it come off? Could we endure the lengthy duration of continuous unaccompanied vocal tone, and could the choir keep to pitch? The risk was there, and Bantock took it, giving to the choir-master (RH Wilson) a great opportunity. The Hallé choir won through, bringing laurels for themselves and all associated with the work.

In the press forward for the presentation of other familiar and new works. Atalanta has been pushed aside, despite its position as a choral masterpiece: so I am glad to learn that Eugene Goossens has the work in rehearsal in America, where a popular and artistic success might turn the thoughts of composers to fresh fields.

  1. See Brian’s comments on this occasion — which clearly impressed itself forcibly on his memory — in the interview in our last Newsletter [JRM to add hypertext link] ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, March 1935, p. 491